Winning 15 consecutive games on Jeopardy! is a feat in its own right. Since the show lifted the five-game cap in 2003, it has only been accomplished by three contestants: David Madden, Julia Collins and Ken Jennings – until today.
James Holzhauer proved himself extraordinary long before crossing this elite threshold. He’s been upending long-held records since his earliest days in competition, and suddenly he now holds the top five records in Single-Game Winnings as well as the second-place spot for Highest Winnings in regular-season play. And for everyone following his exploits, he’s already got a spot waiting for him on the All-Time Winnings list – and that’s before ever playing in any tournaments! All in all, it’s safe to say that James is redefining the standard of excellence for Jeopardy! champions.
So who is this sports gambler from Las Vegas who has been taking the game of Jeopardy! one jaw-dropping wager at a time? We took a moment to go behind the podium with James to get a look at the man behind the epic streak.
What first inspired you to try out for Jeopardy!?
It had been my childhood dream. I grew up outside of Chicago and I was a bit of a latchkey kid in my youth, so when I came home from school I would sit with my granny (who spoke only a minuscule of English), who would watch with me, and I made a promise to her that someday she would see me on that stage. So as an adult I remembered this promise to her, and it really was something I’ve wanted to do for 25 years now.
Did you get on the show the first time you tried? Talk about your Jeopardy! journey.
This isn’t my first try. I’ve taken the online test every single year it’s been offered. I went to two auditions for Jeopardy! and one for Sports Jeopardy! You know, I’ve never successfully interviewed for a job before in my life – I’ve never had to, and I don’t know whether I have the skills necessary to succeed in that part of the world. But I’m very happy they called this time! I think I had to wait about 23 months from my audition.
Let’s talk about your preparation for being on the show. What tips can you offer prospective contestants?
I’ve talked about the children’s aisle at the library or the bookstore, and really I can’t say enough about it. I don’t know if you’ve read books written for adults in nonfiction, but they’re pretty boring. But books that engage children, they come at you rapid fire with different subjects, and I’ve seen lots and lots of answers that came straight from that. Practice your confidence, practice being under pressure, practice gambling $30,000 at a time and see if you can stomach losing it.
How do you get your buzzer timing down? Did you practice to be so effective in that area?
I did practice. I read a book actually by a former champion who talked about what he did with the buzzer, and I’ve been trying to practice his techniques. I try clicking at home, but you can’t see the lights that signal exactly when to buzz in. But you get into a rhythm when you’re playing the game. I think that’s the most helpful part.
You talked a little about having your wagers reflect important personal dates, like your wedding anniversary and your daughter’s birthday. Did you have that game plan coming in?
I always had a plan to wager these important numbers, as long as it wasn’t such a critical situation where I had to bet every single penny I had. But you know, those numbers reflect the people I love and who are really close to my heart – mostly my wife and my child. My anniversary, my wife’s birthday, the birthdays of my nieces and nephews are in there – you know, anyone I can remember.
How about writing your name? Was there any significance to that?
I had a plan to go on five shows. For the first five, I did the different first letter of a different metal band logo that I really like. I just kind of winged it from there, and I figured I was already doing a different thing every day – I might as well try some stuff.
Talk about your daily lunch ritual. What is the lunch of a champion?
My daily lunch ritual is a slice of cheese pizza, a candy bar and a bag of chips.
You clearly have to be completely in the moment to be able to answer so quickly and effectively. How do you stay in the moment and not get distracted by the audience or anything else?
What I do is I close my eyes and picture me and my daughter going down a nice slide or doing something together and it keeps me grounded. It reminds me what this is for.
Speaking of being grounded, you’ve already talked about taking some of the winnings and giving back to children’s charities. Talk about why that’s so important to you.
Maybe it’s being a father. I can’t say for sure, but something about kids in need really resonates with both me and my wife. So whoever we can help with this money ... we can certainly help other people more than ourselves at this point.
Stay tuned to see how far James’s winning streak will go!